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Arsenal in 2021: A mixed year, but hope for the future

As always, it’s been an eventful year at Arsenal, full of ups and downs.

Despite a strong finish, they ended the last season in eighth place and missed out on European football for the first time this century.

And, after a really poor start to the new campaign, they looked to be in real trouble. However, they have managed to turn it around and currently sit in fourth. They go into the new year with renewed hope.

Best player – Bukayo Saka

The Gunners have a lot of talented youngsters in their ranks, but none are more promising than Bukayo Saka. He is proving to be a star in this side.

The winger is a real threat, possessing a good turn of pace, excellent dribbling, an eye for a pass, good delivery, a capable weak foot, and convincing finishing. He ended the year with 11 goals in all competitions.

Saka’s performances earned him a spot in England’s starting XI at the European Championships. He played a key part in the Three Lions’ route to the final, starting three of their seven matches.

If he can keep up his current form, he may be able to keep his place for next year’s World Cup, despite strong competition in his position.

Best game – Arsenal 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur

August couldn’t have gone much worse for Arsenal. They had lost their first three without scoring a goal. Meanwhile, bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur had won their opening three without conceding.

But everything changed in September. The red side of north London had managed to turn things around, while the Lilywhites had hit a bad patch. It was all building up to a fascinating match-up at the Emirates on September 26.

Right from the first whistle, Mikel Arteta’s side showed that they were up for the fight. Meanwhile, half of Spurs’ team looked like they’d rather be somewhere else.

The Gunners enjoyed a devastating first half, racing into a three-goal lead before the break. Emile Smith Rowe opened the scoring, converting from Saka’s cutback.

Smith Rowe then turned provider, finding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a pass. The striker took it first time, finishing into the far corner following a deadly counter-attack.

Seven minutes later, it was 3-0. The ball broke kindly to Saka in the box after Harry Kane’s tackle, and the youngster found the far corner with his weak foot.

Tottenham showed a little bit more in the second half, but goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale was at his best to deny Kane and Lucas Moura.

They threatened a late comeback when Heung-min Son converted from Sergio Reguilon’s cross, but it was too little too late as Arsenal held out for the three points.

Worst game – Brentford 2-0 Arsenal

All eyes were on the Brentford Community Stadium, as Brentford and Arsenal kicked off the 2021/22 Premier League season.

It was the hosts’ first top-flight game since 1947 and saw the return of supporters to stadiums after a year-and-a-half absence. It was going to be a special occasion.

The visitors were suffering from several absentees. The likes of Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Partey, and Gabriel Magalhaes all had to miss out due to various reasons.

And the game went according to the fairytale. Sergi Canos bagged the first goal of the new season, beating Bernd Leno at his near post after cutting inside from the left.

Christian Norgaard doubled Brentford’s advantage in the 73rd minute, nodding in after Mads Bech Sorensen’s long throw found its way to the back post.

Smith Rowe and Nicolas Pepe had efforts kept out by David Raya, but it was ultimately a disappointing showing from Arsenal.

Transfer business

Arsenal have been uncharacteristically busy in the transfer market over the past year. Back in January, they brought in Martin Odegaard and Mat Ryan on loan deals.

Then in the summer, they opened their wallets, spending around £130 million. They made Odegaard’s move permanent and brought in the likes of Ramsdale, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares.

Most of these have proven to be shrewd investments. Ramsdale, Odegaard, White and Tomiyasu have all made bright starts to life in north London.

However, we won’t be able to tell how this window went until a few years down the line. Everyone brought in was 23 and under. They’re part of a long-term project.

In three or four years, we could look back at this window as a key moment in Arsenal’s fortunes. Alternatively, it could be viewed as £130m squandered. But as of now, it’s looking promising.

Meanwhile, no one too important has left. Mesut Ozil’s chapter at Arsenal came to a close in January, along with Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

Willian left on a free transfer in the summer and Joe Willock was sold to Newcastle United after a loan spell.

How did the manager do?

Arteta has come under a lot of pressure over the last year, but he ends 2021 positively.

Where the Spaniard has succeeded most is his record with the younger players. He has helped build a side full of youthful talent and has them playing some excellent stuff.

If this team can continue at their current rate, they could be a frightening side in years to come.

However, there have been drawbacks. A fourth-round FA Cup exit to Southampton will have come as a huge disappointment, as well as their failure to better Villarreal in the semi-final of the Europa League.

These will be seen as missed opportunities to get some more silverware in the cabinet.

Arteta has been notoriously stern in dealing with Aubameyang, who has gained a bit of a reputation for his behaviour.

After breaching the club’s disciplinary rules in December, the former captain was stripped of the armband and left out of the squad in each of their last five games.

It remains to be seen whether this is the right approach, but it sends out a clear message to the squad that no one is untouchable – not even the captain and star player.

There have been highs and lows, but Arteta appears to be making steady progress at the Emirates.

Overall consensus

On the whole, it’s been a reasonably positive year for Arsenal.

Finishing eighth last season and failing to win a trophy does little to satisfy the fans. They will be hoping to rectify this when they face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup semi-finals in the early days of next year.

But, for the first time in a while, the fans seem to have genuine hope for the future. The current team is young, vibrant, and should only get better. They’re certainly one to watch in 2022.

Read also: 5 transfers set to be completed in January.

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